Recruitment & Retention

Why Understanding Principal Turnover Is Important for Teacher Retention

By Denisa R. Superville — June 15, 2022 5 min read
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The longer a principal stays in a school, the more likely that principal is to hire teachers who will stick around for a while.

That’s according to a new paper, published online in the Journal of Educational Administration this month, based on data from nearly 12,000 Texas principals, from 1999 to 2017. The goal was to determine whether principals, as they gained experience, got better at hiring teachers who would remain in their schools.

The paper, found that by their fifth year at their school, principals had become better at hiring teachers who would stay in the school for three years.

By their seventh year, they’d become really good at hiring teachers who stay in the school for five years. The gains leveled off after seven years.

“What this study finds is that it is time at that school that improves their hiring ability,” said Sarah Guthery, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas A&M University-Commerce, who authored the paper with Lauren Bailes, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware school of education.

“One of the big takeaways that Lauren and I found really profound is that principals tend to improve in their fifth year of being in the school, and we simultaneously found that principals tend to depart, on average, the year prior to that.”

That means that large swaths of teachers, and, by extension, students, may not reap the benefits that can come from stability in school leadership.

About 18 percent of principals leave their schools annually, for a variety of reasons, according to federal data, and about half of new principals leave by the end of three years.

That movement disrupts schools.

“What we also know is that when principals turn over, teachers also tend to turn over,” Bailes said. “A principal’s departure, for any reason, can instigate some of that instability. It can mean having to build new school culture, having to acculturate new professionals, get kids comfortable, get people acclimated to new curricula replacement.”

Although the phenomenon is not universal, she said, in many cases, “if you are truncating principal experience in that way and particularly building-level principal experience, what you’re doing is also subjecting the school to potential disruptions of the instructional program.”

Hiring improves over time

Although a principal may get better at hiring over time, that skill does not appear to automatically travel with them when they move to a new school. That indicates that there are also unique building-level factors that play into teacher-retention, the researchers said.

Bailes and Guthery found that when principals left their original school for another one, the teacher-retention rate at the new school was higher at the second school the following year than it was in at a comparable time in the principal’s first school. But that teacher-retention rate was still lower than it would have been if the principal had stayed at the first school.

In a smaller subset of the data, the authors also found that some schools with longer principal and teacher tenure also saw their state school ratings improve.

It’s possible, Bailes said, that “perhaps the principals who are getting better at hiring are also more effective in other ways.”

“So, they are less likely to be the principals who are instigating teacher turnover,” she said.

The paper did not get into what principals were doing to improve teacher retention, something both Bailes and Guthery said was ripe for further research.

The study controlled for poverty, school demographics, principals’ experience before becoming school leaders, and teachers’ experience.

“What we can say is that those indicators of school quality are based on what we know about effective school leadership ... what we see in the PSEL [Professional Standards for Educational Leaders] standards,” Bailes said. “It has to do with human resources and supporting teachers and integrating curriculum and meeting students’ needs.

“By extension, we can imagine the principals are doing the things that are represented in the standards and then captured in the teacher-quality assessment and school-quality assessment. But we don’t have any specific indications of what these principals, in particular, were doing.”

Bailes and Guthery said they hope the paper will give district leaders a new perspective on the interconnectedness of teacher and principal retention.

A 2012 report by TNTP, a national organization focused on teacher quality, made the connection between principals and teacher retention. The report said that principals were among the reasons why highly effective teachers left their schools.

Others have also studied the link between principal turnover, teacher turnover, and other school outcomes.

In a 2019 study on the effects of principal turnover, Brendan Bartanen, Jason Grissom, and Laura K. Rogers found that principal turnover led to higher teacher turnover and lower math and reading scores in the year after the principal’s departure. But the reason for the turnover also influenced the outcomes after the principal left, they said.

They also noted that turnover was not necessarily a bad thing.

Leadership retention as a school improvement tool?

School improvement efforts are driven by short timetables, with rapid turnaround expected in short order. That’s often driven by financial incentives, but also communities running out of patience.

Bailes said their study indicates rapid turnover in school leaders during those initiatives may not be the best policy.

“There can be value in stability as well,” Guthery added. “And for schools that are also looking for turnaround, it may not always be a change at the top.”

Bailes said she’d encourage districts to review policies and practices that prompt movement from school to school, as well as the impact on the schools principals leave behind and the new ones they’re taking over.

Principals often bag higher salaries when they move from school to school. But district leaders should also consider incentives for principals and teachers who reach major milestones in their tenures, for making it to the 5th and 10th years at their schools, she said.

And support for principals, through the use of principal supervisors, for example, could be the key to getting them to stay in their schools.

The authors still have unanswered questions on the connection between the length of the principals’ tenure and teacher turnover. Among them: What actual principal practices are improving teacher retention? Which teachers (math, science, English, for example) are staying? What district-led teacher-retention efforts are offered?

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